Attack on Vanity in Sheridan’s School for Scandal and Pope’s the Rape of the Lock
The primary theme in both Sheridan’s School for Scandal and Pope’s The Rape of the Lock is the tendency that high society of the time has to overemphasize matters that are insignificant in the grand scheme of things, in particular breaches of proper decorum brought on by vanity. Pope employs a mock-epic style to satirize the upper echelons of society (the “beau-monde”) in eighteenth century England, but his account perhaps holds more depth than a simple satirical attack on the vanity of the elite classes. For all his criticism, it is apparent he has some admiration for Belinda and the society that surrounded her. Pope himself did not belong inside the “beau-monde”, and was therefore able to make clear judgment on a self-obsessed society that he was observing from a distance. In the School for Scandal, Sheridan presents vanity as some form of cover, as “a polished surface to conceal a discordant inside”, in the words of critic John Picker. Sheridan’s comedy appears to the audience as being complete only in a superficial sense, and like the hypocritical figure of Joseph Surface, the play satisfies an audience on the outside, but the vanity beneath confirms the misleading nature of appearances.
In The Rape, the incident at the centre of the poem is a feud of epic proportions that explodes after the Baron’s theft of a lock of Belinda’s hair, the real incident the poem was based on taking place between a Lord Petre and a Miss Arabella Fermor. This small act of greed and created an estrangement of two families that continued for many years, portraying the extent to which their sense of their own importance was exaggerated. In keeping with this, Pope continually uses disproportionately grandiose language to assist with preparing the reader for his satirical stance, and this is present from the very first lines of the poem: “What dire Offence from am’rous Causes springs/ What mighty Contests rise from trivial Things.” In comparison, Sheridan makes it clear throughout School for Scandal that gossip and vanity only work well in the form of corroding personalities, for example the effect Mrs Candour’s actions have on Charles Surface, leading him straight to “absolute ruin”. Mrs Candour’s ability to transform these human flaws into the defining feature of a person enable the ‘reduction’ of a character to take place. This is shown in “His extravagance…the town talks of nothing else.” Vanity in particular appears to adopt such a prominent role in the level of social acceptance of characters, especially when one’s own vanity is displaced onto someone else. For example Mrs Candour’s statements that Mrs Vermilion is a poorly made-up face, Mrs Pursy a “fat dowager”, and of Mrs Evergreen as an aging case of extreme vanity. This clearly shows that Mrs Candour’s tendency towards vanity and being “critical in beauty” leads to nothing more than a lack of individuality, essentially an overall disintegration of eighteenth century society.
Pope places Belinda’s integrity under doubt early on in The Rape, most noticeably at the point of the revelation of Ariel. Belinda is informed that a small part of her will live on after death: “Her Joy in gilded Chariots, when alive/ And Love of Ombre, after Death survive.” Although Belinda’s “succeeding vanities” are discussed considerably in this section, it is possible to assume that the surviving part would be the deepest part of her personality, and the “first Elements” of her soul. However, the surviving “vanities” described imply that Belinda is made up of not much more than a selfish love of pleasure. However, this self-obsession does not necessarily lead Belinda to demise, but rather to some form of religion and intense devotion. This is shown in the linguistically rich description of her toilette: “Each Silver Vase in mystic Order laid… rob’d in White, the Nymph intent adores/ With Head uncover’d, the Cosmetic Pow’rs”. This morning routine is a parody of the arming of the epic hero, and the irony present in the reversal from the immediately obvious “cosmic powers” to “Cosmetic powers” portrays the full extent of her “devotion to her religion of narcissism”, in the words of critic Ellen Pollack. Similarly, this reversal is present in the form of comic farce in School for Scandal, specifically in the well-known “screen scene”. An example of this is when Joseph Surface attempts to seduce Lady Teazle by using convoluted logic that will add to her own vanity, and therefore attract her: “Your character…is like a person in a plethora – absolutely dying from too much health.” Sheridan’s use of this device is somewhat similar to the serpant praising Eve’s intelligence using twisted logic, in Milton’s Paradise Lost.
The main difference between Sheridan and Pope’s style of attack on vanity is one is displayed through carefully crafted wit, and the other through a means that is not quite as good-humoured. The Rape is written as a Horatian satire, given this name after a Roman satirist whose opinion was that “every play should either instruct or delight”. Pope’s decision to write entirely in heroic couplets satirises the vanity of a society he could never be a part of, where trivialities are overemphasized and grand creatures are turned into trivialities, as shown in “The tortoise here and elephant unite/ Transformed to combs, the speckled and the white.”, an example of bathos. This is solidified in the mock epic catalogue (“Puffs, powders, patches, Bibles, billet-doux’.) where Pope places the auspicious Bible amongst unimportant items in order to create a commentary on the complete lack of morality in his society. However, these lines remain light-hearted and without intention for malice. In contrast, Sheridan does use a form of malice in School for Scandal to degrade a society where gossip and vanity is described as a “multi-headed Hydra”, vital for survival and never-ending. The characters in The Rape and School for Scandal are integrally linked by their vanity, and their “motives to depreciate each other”.
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